Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim Ultra Run Adventure

4

by Pascal Fuchs

Thursday, April 14, 2016
South Rim Temp
63º Hi
34º Lo

Phantom Ranch Temp
81º Hi
56º Lo

North Rim (Closed) Temp
60º Hi
32º Lo

It all started about 10 years ago while visiting the Grand Canyon National Park with my wife. We took a quick look at the majestic canyon, did the touristy things, bought souvenirs and then drove back to Phoenix. I always carried this sense of guilt inside me, always knew that somehow I had violated the grandeur of that place by not even setting foot in its entrails!

Later on I took on trail running which has since become a necessity in my life. It helps me clear up my mind and brings peace and immense joy whenever I am out there on a remote and often solo run. I enjoy competing in triathlons, duathlons and marathons but there is nothing quite like trail running for the soul!

I woke up one day with a clear goal in mind, something I absolutely needed to do. I needed to go back to the canyon and show my respect by actually running through it from South to North. I talked to a few fellow trail runners about the idea and you cannot imagine my surprise when a few years later a friend of mine sent me a text saying “Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim April 2016!” I literally shook with excitement and answered right away that I was in! We trained for months and researched the subject intensely.

I flew to Las Vegas two days before the projected run day and got picked up at the airport by Brook, a friend of Nat, my training partner. Brook lives in Los Angeles and had offered to pick me up on his way to Tusayan, the closest town to Grand Canyon National Park. We hit it off right away and talked a lot during our drive to AZ. This guy is a natural athlete who enjoys tough challenges and it was fun finally to meet him! When we arrived that evening Nat and his family were already there and it was great catching up with them.

IMG_1651

The alarm went on at 2:30am on Thursday and it came as a relief. I was so excited and anxious I just could not sleep anyway! I forced myself to eat two bananas, one peanut butter and jelly sandwich and drank my coffee and a bottle of UCAN so I could start with a full-stocked stomach! I took a shower, collected my gear and headed out in the lobby where I was quickly joined by my adventurous running friends. It was pitch dark and a bit cold out there but it was not bad at all! We drove to the parking lot closer to the South Kaibab Trailhead near Yaki Point, attached our headlamps and jogged silently through the night until we reached the actual trailhead. It was around 4:30am.

We had decided to go down South Kaibab Trail rather than Bright Angel Trail for two reasons: South Kaibab Trail has no water point but it did not matter since we had enough water in our packs, the sun was not even up yet. Also because it was much steeper, and was facing the canyon. We switched off our lights for a minute and gazed at the crazy awesome star filled night! After checking out a few details we finally started running down a pretty technical narrow path and we were soon swallowed by the canyon walls.

It took me a bit of time to adjust to running with a light on but I soon felt very confident and got into a nice rhythm. It was pitch dark and we were literally running alongside pretty scary cliffs so we did not push the pace too much! We descended 4860 feet along a 6.3-mile rugged trail going through Cedar Ridge, Skeleton Point (my favorite!) and Tip Off. We could see headlamps moving through the night far lower inside the canyon and realized it must have been early morning hikers wanting to hit the trail before the mule train went down. We stopped often, adjusted the camera, marveled at the gorgeous sunrise which slowly revealed the canyon walls and created cool shadows around us. There was a deep sense of peace and well-being which I have not felt often in any other places before with the exception of Monument Valley.

Phantom

Nat had a bit of an upset stomach and let us know pretty early on that his legs felt like concrete—which was a bit concerning since we were only a few miles in! We soon reached the raging and icy Colorado River, went through a long tunnel and onto the bridge itself. We reached Bright Angel Campground at mile 7 and soon after, Phantom Ranch at 7.4 miles. This is a great resting place at the bottom of the canyon full of life with a canteen/store, restrooms, and a few cabins for hikers. I believe we got there in 3 hours 45 minutes. Brook was in amazing form. He has fantastic footwork and it was fascinating to follow his steps all the way down! I felt fine and Nat’s stomach problems were better.

We rested for a while, filled up our bottles and packs and resumed our run, leaving this comforting heaven to push further into the bottom of the canyon. It was getting warmer now but it was still very comfortable. We followed the winding river, running on rocky cliff sides, passing through every ecosystem found between Canada and Mexico, looking out for rattlesnakes and canyon squirrels. We crossed multiple bridges, drank straight from the river (with a special filter straw of course) and slowly ticked off the miles. After about the 15 mile mark Brook was still leading the pace effortlessly, bouncing lightly on his feet. Nat was following in his stride and I was starting to hurt. My legs felt heavy and I was weirdly warm, my heart rate skyrocketing in my chest. I started trailing them and needed to alternate run/walk. I told them that they should keep on going and that I would join them later on but they insisted we all stayed together. We reached Cottonwood Camp and got water, ate, and rested before continuing our way.

We reached Manzanita and met a solo female hiker who had camped up on the North Rim the night before and was now going all the way to Phantom Ranch. Soon we were going up a very steep section which lasted for miles and I definitely felt out of it—the altitude was killing me! The North Rim tops at 8,200 feet and I could feel the altitude sickness. My legs were shaking and I had to stop at every switchback. It was getting harder to breathe and I was feeling a bit disoriented which could be problematic when you are right next to sheer vertical cliff drops! I told Brook I was considering turning back and would wait for them at the bottom but I still kept pushing slowly on until about three miles from the top of the North Rim, between Roaring Springs and Supai tunnel. As I was lost in my confused thoughts I saw a solo hiker coming down my way. He saluted me and asked if I was the Frenchman?!! He said that my friends were a bit concerned for me and had advised me to turn around and get to a lower altitude. I cannot express how relieved I felt! I was so happy to hear someone tell me to turn around. I don’t think I would have otherwise! I thanked the man and told him they were right and I started down.

 

I quickly realized my energy was back. I felt amazing after about a half mile down. I was a bit disappointed not to have gone all the way but it was ok! I decided to start running again and I managed to run the 11 miles all the way back to Phantom Ranch in a pretty fast time…I was back from the dead! I was now at mile 30 and I was a bit concerned because I had expected my friends to catch up with me during my way back but it did not happen. I came across at least 30 hikers, and also a lone US Marine in full gear, carrying his heavy pack. I stopped at Cottonwood to get water and waited for 20 minutes before pushing on to Phantom Ranch.

So here I was with only one climb left…a 9.9-mile hill though! We had agreed to climb up Bright Angel trail on  the way back because it is less steep and has water points on the way. So I rested in the shade, drank a delicious ice tea, ate two Snickers and wrote two postcards (which will be brought up by mules all the way back to the Post Office!). I waited for about 1 hour 15 minutes, went to the Canteen, left a message for my friends and decided to start climbing Bright Angel.

IMG_1654

I crossed the other cool bridge, and made my way up, first in very sandy trails and later on very rocky ones. It took me forever…I originally thought it would take me about three hours to get back up, but it took me close to five! The trail was quite steep and endless, switchbacks after switchbacks. I made my way up, meeting a lot of hikers on the way, especially at Indian Garden. I had been on my own for about 8 hours when I finally made it on the top of the Rim. Torture was over with…14 hours 30 minutes later and 40 miles covered! I glanced at the canyon, keeping my eyes stuck on the North Rim. I was almost at the top! It felt very rewarding. I had done a truly epic run, it takes most hikers about three days to go only one way.

I soon realized it was almost dusk and the wind was freezing! I was concerned because there was no real shelter, I was cold and tired, and Brook’s car was parked some six miles away and I did not have the keys anyway! Our plan had been to take a shuttle back to the car. I turned around looking for some kind of shelter and I saw Nat’s wife coming my way and she was crying as she hugged me! She had been so worried all night and day for us and here I was safe but alone and I had no idea where they were! I told her they were strong all day and that they would be following soon. At that point it became pitch dark! We went back to the car and waited for a while before leaving a message on their phones (no cell service in the canyon) and they very nicely drove me back to the hotel where we anxiously waited for them to contact us. The call came about 2 hours 30 minutes later. They had made it safely, the last hours in total darkness (they still had their headlamps).

The big shock was when they said that they never reached the North Rim top either! They got increasingly tired, out of water, constrained by timing and decided to turn around after Supai tunnel which is only 1.7 mile from the top but so steep it would have taken hours! I was bummed to hear that, but very proud at the same time. They were strong and wise enough to make a tough decision and that was awesome! That was undoubtedly the toughest run I have ever done! Do not underestimate the difficulty of the canyon. If you are not fully prepared you may just die in there!

Share.

4 Comments

  1. michael wolcott on

    The post-run breakfast with Nat and my nephew Brook was an equally monumental undertaking, but I made it through my Southwest quesadilla under my own power and with no injuries or real physical stress.

  2. Michael…I am glad you made it safely through your breakfast too! I am sorry I missed the opportunity to meet you in person after having heard so much about your person! Brook is no doubt very proud of you and of your lifestyle! Hope to see you for real in 2 years! Cheers!

    Scott…I am sorry you did not appreciate the day recap, We definitely enjoyed that great outing very much, we totally love and respect the place! As for your comment about getting healthier..Well we are pretty healthy individuals who race and run quite often, the fact that we live either in CT or CA may be for the fact that we felt the effect of altitude…I really believe that you need to be ready and aware of your surroundings ( like water points) before tackling the Canyon, it is certainly not a walk in a park!! That is unless you are that Scott….